Aerial Firefighting – How Does It Work?

With the recent news of the Global Supertanker 747 ceasing operations and a former Flybe Dash 8 beginning a new life as a water bomber, there’s been a lot of talk about aerial firefighting. It’s a hot topic right now- and with summer just around the corner (in the northern hemisphere) – it’s worth looking at how aerial fighting works.

Aerial Firefighting – How Does It Work?
Governments can call on private companies, who own water tankers, to fly to hot spots and conduct firefighting operations. Photo: Getty Images

Government agencies call on private companies

First, let’s take a look at the business of aerial firefighting. Aerial firefighters can be a variety of aircraft, including helicopters, turboprops, modified commercial narrowbody jets, and even widebody commercial jets.

Some aerial firefighter aircraft are owned by government agencies. A good example is California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL Fire), whose fleet of over 50 fixed-wing and rotary-wing make it “the largest department-owned fleet of aerial firefighting equipment in the world.”

However, aerial firefighters can also be owned by private, for-profit companies. Some examples include:

  • 10 Tanker and its four DC-10 tankers
  • Conair and its fleet of modified Dash 8s and Avro RJ85s
  • Coulson Aviation, whose fleet includes three 737-300 ‘Fireliners’
  • And Global Supertanker, whose Boeing 747-based operations are currently in a state of uncertainty

It’s these companies that governments can call upon for their firefighting needs. This may range from a signed contract for a fixed term to a last-minute request. Not only does this allow countries (or states or provinces) to use the waterbombers as needed, but it theoretically means that these private companies have more agility in serving year-round across all parts of the world.

Edward G. Keating, a senior economist at the RAND Corporation, tells Frontline Wildfire Defense System that “Retardant costs about $3 a gallon. When you’re dropping 3,000 gallons per drop, that’s $9,000 every time.” Keating notes that tankers can cost around $6,000 per hour to operate.

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Collecting and storing water

As we have seen from the above examples, aerial firefighters may once have been commercial passenger aircraft. Modification to their new role requires removing most if not all passenger seating and overhead bins and replacing that space with large tanks to store water (or foam, gel, or retardant).

However, in the case of Conair’s Q400ATs and 10 Tanker’s DC-10s, an external tank is added beneath the belly of the plane. Conair tells Air Attack magazine that external tanks are easier to work with and are more reliable.

For most aircraft, tanks are filled on the ground using hoses. However, other, more specialized aircraft are fitted with retractable ‘scoops’ on the hull. When deployed, these scoops refill tanks while skimming across the surface of a lake. The Martin Mars, two of which are operated by Coulson Aircrane, is an example of an aircraft with this capability.

Discharging the load

Then, whether it’s water, foam, or some other fire retardant, these aerial tankers are dispatched to their assigned location to make the drop. At the right time, over the right location, doors are opened, and the load is discharged, typically drawn out by gravity (without a pressure system).

The video embedded above provides a close-up view of the Global SuperTanker 747 discharging water. For this particular aircraft and its internal tanks, the substance is dropped via discharge pipes.

Have you seen an aerial firefighter for yourself yet? Let us know in the comments.

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